How to buy the best sedan

Whether you're looking for practicality or performance, we'll help you make the right choice.

Wayne Cunningham Managing Editor / Roadshow
Wayne Cunningham reviews cars and writes about automotive technology for CNET's Roadshow. Prior to the automotive beat, he covered spyware, Web building technologies, and computer hardware. He began covering technology and the Web in 1994 as an editor of The Net magazine.
Wayne Cunningham
8 min read
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Top picks

Practical and affordable: Chevrolet Malibu

The most recent generation of Malibu boasts modern, efficient engine choices and easily understood dashboard electronics.

Practical and premium: BMW 5-Series

BMW 's latest 5-Series feels light and comfortable, and leverages technology for efficiency, passenger convenience and performance driving capability. 

Affordable sport driving: Subaru WRX

Facing little competition, the WRX offers exceptional all-wheel-drive handling and a powerful turbocharged engine.

Premium sport driving: Cadillac ATS-V

Cadillac amps up its ATS model with a turbocharged V-6 good for 464 horsepower and, more importantly, delivers on handling with balance and an adaptive suspension.

Luxury on a budget: Lincoln Continental

Lincoln brings back its legendary Continental luxury sedan, with a design and technologies that make it fit for a new era.

Top luxury: Mercedes-Benz S-Class

Despite heavy competition, Mercedes-Benz retains its luxury crown with the S-Class sedan, boasting extraordinary ride quality, top amenities and modern power.

Sedans, defined

Ubiquitous on American roads, sedans are extremely popular. With seating for four to five, you can drive to work every weekday, then pile in the whole family for a trip to the grandparents' house on the weekend. Sedans offer a surprising amount of versatility, with typically large trunks where you can hide cargo from prying eyes.

The unifying design of your typical sedan is the presence of four doors, giving access to all seats, and a trunk. The engine is in the front, driving the front, rear or all wheels.

If you are looking to buy a sedan, the main points to consider include size, power, fuel economy, outward visibility, dashboard electronics and advanced safety features. Here's what you can expect to find on dealer lots today.

Segment overview

Rolls-Royce Phantom Series II

The Rolls-Royce Phantom measures almost 20 feet long, giving passengers plenty of room to stretch out in its lounge rear seat.

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At just over 14 feet, the Toyota Yaris iA currently rates as the smallest sedan you can get, while the largest production sedan on the market is the Rolls-Royce Phantom, measuring a full 19 feet, 2 inches. The 5-foot difference between these sedans comprises an entire world of choice, from affordable practicality to opulent luxury, with a little room for adrenaline along the way.

On that practical end of the spectrum you find the fiercely competitive midsize segment punctuated by the most popular sedan in the US, the Toyota Camry. Many formerly compact-rated sedans, such as the Honda Civic, have also grown into this segment.

Sedans of this type typically measure between 15 and 16 feet long, and offer plentiful trunk space. Consider the Chevrolet Cruze, its 15-cubic-foot trunk big enough for eight 12-packs of paper towels. For even more versatile cargo space, automakers offer pass-throughs, an opening in the middle of the rear seat that lets you carry long, skinny things like skis, or fold-down rear seats that combine trunk and cabin space for cargo.

For an elevated degree of driving comfort, premium automakers such as , Lexus and Mercedes-Benz offer sedans designed for daily life. Although similar in function to the more affordable counterparts, premium sedans tend to offer more power and more amenities in the cabin, from versatile adjustment in the seats to better audio systems.

Some automakers maintain performance divisions and brands, from Mercedes-Benz's AMG to Lexus' F-Performance, fitting existing models with more powerful engines and sport-ready suspension components. Few performance-oriented economy sedans are available today, as the hot hatchback is more popular, but you will find many premium sedans designed to slake their owners' adrenaline thirst.

Finally, there is the luxury set, large sedans designed either to be driven by the owner or a chauffeur. Automakers often, but not always, introduce their latest technologies in these flagship vehicles first, which then trickle down into the lesser models of their lineups. Luxury sedans, exemplified by cars such as the Lexus LS 500 and Mercedes-Benz S-Class, focus on a roomy interior and a smooth ride, delivering home and office comfort on the road. Even among big luxury sedans, however, value buys can be found.

Power versus economy

Older cars presented a choice: power or fuel economy, you couldn't have both. Now, automakers are exploring a host of technologies to make engines more efficient, delivering the power that drivers desire and the fuel economy they demand. A typical strategy involves reducing engine size and adding forced induction, either a turbo- or supercharger, creating more power only when needed.

2016 Honda Civic

Honda's new Civic gets a 1.5-liter engine with power boosted to 188 horsepower by a turbocharger.

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Consider the new Honda Civic, which can be had with a 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine. That is exceptionally small by recent standards, but Honda has added a turbocharger, making this engine more powerful than the Civic's base two-liter engine. At the same time, the smaller engine gets slightly better fuel economy.

Even large luxury sedans, where V-8 engines still reign supreme, may see downsizing. Cadillac's newest large luxury sedan, the CT6, gives buyers the choice of a four-cylinder or V-6 engine, prompting the question whether buyers of that type of car really care about counting cylinders.

Power and fuel economy vary by the size -- and intent -- of the sedan. You can get crazy, with something like the Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat, which makes 707 horsepower from its 6.2-liter V-8 engine. Or you can get hyperefficient with the Ford Fusion Hybrid, rating an average of 42 mpg on EPA tests. That same Charger can also get more than 20 mpg on the highway, while the Fusion Hybrid boasts 188 horsepower, more than enough for a midsize sedan.

One note about hybrid drivetrains: they remain something of a niche, partly because they add to a car's cost that's not necessarily made up for by their increased fuel efficiency. Cars such as the Toyota Camry Hybrid and Ford Fusion Hybrid capture what would otherwise be wasted kinetic energy, reusing it to drive the wheels with an electric motor.

Tech and safety

Among today's sedans, Bluetooth hands-free phone systems and USB ports for digital music are ubiquitous. These features comprise the base level of marrying personal digital technology with the dashboard, but there is so much more. Navigation systems, standard in luxury sedans but available as an option in nearly all others, give you turn-by-turn directions to destinations, eliminating the need for distracting paper maps.

2015 Audi A3 Cabriolet

Audi integrates Google Earth imagery into the navigation system of its cars.

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If you opt for navigation, look for systems that include live traffic data, which can keep you out of traffic jams, the ability to search for destinations online, and one-box search for destinations, similar to Google Maps and Apple Maps interfaces. The Audi A3's navigation system includes Google online destination search powered by a 4G data connection, accessible right on the car's dashboard screen.

For those who prefer their smartphone apps, automakers are rapidly adopting Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, both of which mirror the phone's interface on the car's LCD in a manner conducive to safe driving.

The rapidly growing category of driver assistance systems includes a few features that can save lives, or at least prevent collisions and the ensuing headaches of dealing with insurance and body shops. Back-up cameras are so beneficial for safety that the government will mandate them by 2018.

Many new cars make pedestrian detection and collision prevention systems available. Relying on a camera and sometimes radar, these systems alert you to an impending collision, and some can even slam on the brakes if you don't react in time.  promised to make its advanced safety systems standard on all of its models, including low end cars such as the new Corolla

Blind-spot monitor systems, which let you know if there is a car in the lane next to you, can also help prevent collisions. Similarly, lane-keeping systems can prevent drowsy drivers from drifting over a lane line. For pure convenience, adaptive cruise control systems maintain a speed you set, then slow down and match speeds of slower traffic ahead. Systems such as these usually come as options in sedans but are widely available.

Practical sedan picks

2016 Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid

Chevrolet Malibu

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Among sedans, practicality is a virtue. If you want something not too costly that will get you from home to work, and any point in between, the new Chevrolet Malibu shows off modern features in the midsize sedan category and goes for a base price of $22,000. Along with its two turbocharged engine options, offers a hybrid version that easily pulls fuel economy in the high 40s. Its MyLink infotainment system supports both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. As a smaller alternative, the Honda Civic offers a comfortable cabin and solid driving dynamics, with a base price of $19,000.

2017 BMW 530i

BMW 530i

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To go upscale yet remain practical, check out the BMW 5-series, which starts at $51,200. As the 530i, it comes with a turbocharged 2-liter engine making an ample 248 horsepower while achieving high 20s average fuel economy. BMW's newest infotainment system implements Apple CarPlay through a wireless connection, and offers a host of options for convenience and sport performance. For the best fuel economy, BMW offers the plug-in hybrid 530e iPerformance variant.

Sport driver picks

2018 Subaru WRX STI

Subaru WRX

Craving a side of adrenaline with your daily driver? The Subaru WRX tops the list for handling and all-weather capability, and comes in at an affordable $25,000. You can amp up the rowdy ride with the Subaru WRX STI, a better option for weekend track days, coming in at $35,000. Both Subies come with all-wheel drive and powerful engines for their size, and face little competition, as lower-priced sport sedan offerings are few and far between.

2016 Cadillac ATS-V

Cadillac ATS-V

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Move up some tens of thousands in price and you will find a wealth of sport sedan options. Cadillac's ATS-V sedan may be a new entrant to the segment, but it shows up the perennial favorite BMW M3 with excellent power and superior handling. And with a base price around $60,000, it undercuts the pricey German competition. If it is BMW-or-nothing for you, the current M3 still shows raw power and agility, despite being more mature than the legendary E36 versions.

Luxury picks

2017 Lincoln Continental

Lincoln Continental

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Road-going comfort has been a theme ever since automobiles were invented, as builders of fine coaches turned towards the new-fangled horseless carriages. And while luxury costs, Lincoln makes your dollar stretch far with its $44,720 Continental. With the new Continental, a nameplate laden with history, Lincoln wraps impressive cabin amenities, such as 30-way adjustable seats and a 19-speaker Revel audio system, in a thoroughly modern exterior. Taking modernity a step further, the Continental gets by with a powerful yet economical turbocharged V6, rather than a V8.

2018 Mercedes-Benz S560

Mercedes-Benz S560

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However, for a full-size luxury sedan experience, take a look at the Mercedes-Benz S560, the most comfortable and technically proficient car you can buy. Consider features such as massage seats, near self-driving capability, and even aromatherapy. Get the executive rear seat package, add a chauffeur, and your ride becomes perfectly stress-free. Expect to pay well over $100,000 for a well-outfitted S560, chauffeur not included.